Friday, May 4, 2012

The Really Tough Question: Milan Lucic

The press is all abuzz about the "big" question facing the Bruins regarding their two goaltenders. Even though the Bruins have indicated that they are happy with keeping Tim Thomas and Tukka Rask for next year, they keep stirring the pot about trading Thomas. When you read this stuff long enough it becomes pretty clear that their reasons for writing these articles are about writing headlines that get people's attention. The rest is just filler they can arrange their advertisements around.

Writers like Stephen Harris can write snide articles about how Thomas wasn't "great" this year all they want, but it doesn't change the fact that he's the most consistently good goaltender in the NHL today (where was Ryan Miller this year? Luongo? Lundquist last year?). The fact is that there would have been no cup without Thomas and there is little likelihood there will be another without him either. A goaltender like Thomas is a once in a lifetime thing.

On Thursday the media had the opportunity to ask Cam Neely anything they wanted. They of course asked their "tough" question about Thomas. But they didn't ask the question I would have asked: "Mr. Neely, what did you think of Milan Lucic's play in game seven?"

Lucic is a sort of project of Neely's. It was a phone call from Neely that persuaded Lucic to come to the Bruins in the first place. I have always wondered what Neely promised him. It seemed clear in the years that followed that Lucic was being groomed to play a certain role for the team. What began to play out was like a movie script. He spent his entire first season fighting everyone who would go with him, including the toughest fighters in the league. Neely personally took him under his wing, even going out on the ice during practice to give him tips. Having won over the Boston fans with his fighting, Lucic began the transition to modern power forward. It was a bit rocky at times, and many wondered if he could make it as a top line winger.

In a way, Lucic reminds me of one of my childhood Bruins heroes, Phil Esposito. Phil was not the fastest skater, but he was big and strong and he knew how to use those assets. If Gretzky's "office" was behind the net, Espo's was in front. He'd just stand there defiantly, challenging someone from the other team to move him, and when there was a rebound he'd pounce on it.

We've all watched Lucic's slow and awkward skating, followed by a critical goal on a drive to the net that nobody could stop. I vividly recall a game late this last season where he was just floating around in the offensive zone, being completely ineffective. It was so bad that I started yelling at him on the TV to get his feet moving and make something happen. Just then a linemate forced a turnover in the corner and the puck popped right to Lucic's stick. He had some room and drove straight to the net and scored. I just stood there shaking my head, not sure what to make of it. After all, I had just been yelling at him to get in the damned game.

During another late season game he was carrying the puck up the wing just as we'd seen him do again and again. Usually he'd run into a defenseman who'd stop him along the boards and he'd just stand there watching the puck slide into the corner. It was infuriating to watch. This time he ran into two players who squeezed him off, but they bounced awkwardly off each other and Lucic broke through. There was a moment of hesitation, like he was truly surprised, and then he drove straight to the net and scored. How do you figure a player like that?

Nobody in the media is talking about it, but in game seven Lucic literally stood around on the ice. You hear coaches talk about how players need to keep their feet moving, but what they mean is that they shouldn't be gliding around. The idea of just standing out there by yourself, motionless, is unimaginable. Yet several times during that pivotal game, Lucic just stood there. He looked beaten, like a man who knew he'd met his match and he had simply given up. I couldn't understand why the coach kept putting him back out on the ice, except that in the past, just when I'd counted him out he'd always come through. Only this time he didn't.

There was more to Espo's game than size and strength. He played with enormous heart. His competitive spirit was off the charts. In the end, it was that desire to get to that puck and score that made him one of the biggest stars of his day and the Bruins likely would not have won either of their two cups of that era without him. Yet, in their second cup victory over the Rangers, Esposito was a non factor. The Rangers countered Espo with a big center named Walt Tkaczuk, who pretty much shut Espo down. But that didn't stop Espo from trying, and even though he didn't score any goals, that battle in front of the net proved to be important to their winning the series. Imagine the effect on the rest of the team if Espo had just given up.

On the one hand, Lucic made himself felt throughout the series by always finishing his checks, something the rest of the team could have done a better job at. I ticked them off in my head, one after another. That sort of thing should wear another team down with time, but it seemed that it was Lucic who wore down instead. When it came to game seven, instead of making that really big hit that wakes up the team, or simply taking the puck to the net, he never truly made the effort. I wanted to see him at least try.

I'm not ready to give up on Lucic and call for him to be traded. But I think he needs to be called out. I don't ask for a Cup every year from my team. I only ask for them to battle to the end and to play with heart. I don't feel let down by the Bruins even though they didn't make it past the first round. But I do feel let down by Lucic. I would love to know what Neely thinks about his protege right now. I'd love to know what message Neely is sending him, either directly or through the coaching staff. It would not shock me to see him traded over the summer. But if Lucic comes back, there is little question in my mind that how he responds on the ice next season will determine his future with the team.

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